Among friends and family I am famous for avoiding conflict. Once, when I was pitching in a college baseball game, my catcher signaled that I try to hit the batter as payback for his high-cleat slide that nearly injured our shortstop an inning earlier. I shook off the call. He repeated the signal. I shook it off. He called time and jogged out to the mound. “What are you doing?” he said. “What the Dalai Lama would do,” I said.
More recently, in the seating area at a busy food court, I was thrilled to find one of the last open tables for my three-year-old son, and my wife, who was six months pregnant. Out of nowhere, a middle-aged man with a giant gold watch nudged past me and sat down, signaling his friend to join him. A few minutes later, my wife found me sitting on the edge of the fountain. “Busy today,” I said. In the park later that day, what I thought were dried walnut leaves poisoning the ground turned out to be a puddle of freezing water.
This morning I took my son to Popular Doughnuts, where Momo starts rolling dough at 4 a.m. We rarely know the doughnut’s names, so we point, and say, “That one with coconut, this one shaped like a baked potato. Is there filling in that?”
The family in front of us ordered three maple bars and a half-dozen doughnut holes. Their total came to $6.66.
“Whoa!” said the man, looking at his wife, but she was rubbing sanitizer into her toddler’s hands. The man caught my eye.
“Crazy, huh!” he said.
“Yeah!” I said, faking a little enthusiasm. To appear more convincing I turned to my son and explained, “In the Book of Revelation, 666 is a beast. A symbol for the antichrist,” I said, “The devil.” My son just stared.
The man picked up his plastic doughnut tray and walked his family to a far table. His wife looked at me over her shoulder.
A few minutes later we were sitting down when another family took the table behind ours. Recognizing their voices as voices, but not their language, my son turned around for a better look. The back of my neck warmed. I knew I should have told him that it’s rude to stare and that he needed to stop, but for some reason I didn’t. Who am I to say what is and isn’t worthy of his attention, especially if it stems from a genuine curiosity for the novelty of a new language? Besides, I reasoned, maybe he would come to notice that the little girl was eating the same doughnut he was eating; they both love the same concoction of sugar and cocoa powder, flour and oil.
It seems more likely that my son’s habit of staring is only the first drop of rain from that huge cloud we all move around in, obscured in our assumptions about others. But my lifelong habit of avoiding conflict, often at the expense of other people’s comfort, left me feeling utterly unprepared to actually intervene in a situation that had the very real potential to offend.
Finally turning around in his seat, my son said, “Daddy, they’re silly,” then returned to his doughnut. My palms were sweating. I gave him the crayons and paper I packed in my bag. Lowering my head over my own piece of paper, I wrote: Momo is awake at 4 a.m., rolling dough for people like us.
Soon, a man entered the doughnut shop wearing cargo shorts, a camouflage backpack, a flashlight stuffed in a side-pocket. His inhaler hung from a chain around his neck. When he ordered a dozen doughnut holes, my son looked up from his drawing (hot air balloons) and said aloud what he saw, “That man is all by himself.” Outside on the street the sudden racket meant it was raining.
My son returned to his drawing and did not see the man hold out a prescription bottle into which Momo slid his change so he wouldn’t have to touch the dirty coins. When the man turned to leave he did not look at us or anyone else, and for a moment I thought we were insulated from his catastrophe. One thing followed another until we left through the glass door Momo painted green, my son holding his drawing the rain put an end to.